‘How much are the Poor to be pitied, & the Rich to be blamed!’ the young Jane Austen exclaimed in a marginal note to Oliver Goldsmith’s History of England. Mary Toft, the notorious 18th-century ‘rabbit breeder’, was undoubtedly very poor. But was she to be pitied? Contemporary accounts of her hoax identified her as ‘poor’ in ways that combined sympathy with contempt. To one observer, Toft was a ‘poor miserable Woman’; to another, ‘the poor Woman of Godalming … the Topic of every Conversation’; for one pamphleteer, writing sarcastically of her low peasant cunning, she was ‘poor innocent Mary Toft’; a fourth said that, while suspecting her to be a fraud, he had ‘forged a great Compassion for the Woman’s Case’. Poor Cow, the title of Nell Dunn’s novel and Ken Loach’s film of 1967 about a working-class London girl who gets everything wrong, might have applied to her.
On 23 April 1726, Mary Toft was at work in the fields near Godalming in Surrey with two female friends when a rabbit leaped up beside them. All three women were pregnant and probably hungry. They gave chase to the creature, hoping to catch it and cook it, but the rabbit got away – as did a second one. Months later, having reportedly dreamed about and frantically desired that elusive meal, Toft started to bleed heavily. Various substances ‘came away’ from her, including what she described as ‘a large lump of flesh’. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of her later claim that ‘I was delivered of a true monstrous birth’: Toft was suffering a violent and protracted miscarriage. But what exactly had she miscarried? It may have been a malformed placenta or foetus, or, as Karen Harvey suggests, a teratoma – a tumour containing bones, tissues, hair, teeth and flesh that can develop anywhere in the body.
Whatever came out of Mary Toft after that long day in the fields, it seems to have prompted her mother-in-law, Ann, a midwife and the probable instigator of the hoax, to put an awful lot of ghastly stuff straight back in. Toft, already a mother of two, subsequently delivered something resembling ‘the Lights and Guts of a pig’, then ‘three legs of a Cat of a Tabby Colour, and one leg of a Rabbet: the guts were as a Cat’s and in them were three pieces of the Back-Bone of an Eel’. And then the rabbits began to appear.
A local apothecary and obstetrician, John Howard, was the first person outside her immediate circle to examine Toft. He said he felt something ‘leaping’ in her womb. Under his supervision in Guildford, she went on to deliver a large number of dead rabbits, nine in a single day. Howard wrote excitedly about the case to England’s highest-ranking doctors and scientists, and King George I sent two men to investigate: Nathanael St André, Swiss surgeon-anatomist to the royal family, and Samuel Molyneux, secretary to the Prince of Wales. They arrived in Guildford at an opportune moment, just as Toft was about to give birth to a 15th rabbit. Howard had helpfully pickled the others and put them on display in his study. Whether he was entirely persuaded that Toft was gestating rabbits or whether he colluded with her in a deception is unclear. One London doctor thought they were in it together, but since that doctor was himself accused of collaborating with Toft he may simply have been trying to clear his own name. It’s possible that fewer people were genuinely taken in by Toft than were determined to see how far the ruse could be taken, and in particular how many of their opponents or competitors might be gulled.
It was sometimes claimed that Toft delivered 17 perfect (and perfectly dead) rabbits, but what most people saw emerging from her when they attended subsequent shadowy, candlelit deliveries were bits and pieces of various mutilated animals: the limbs and organs of rabbits, yes, but also ‘a piece of Hog’s Bladder’. One of the truly miraculous aspects of the hoax is that she didn’t die of an infection. Not only did she have parts of dead animals thrust inside her but, once removed to London for round the clock scrutiny and casual gawking, she was also subjected to many appalling physical examinations. The doctors who met her published the most intimate gynaecological accounts of their discoveries. Sir Richard Manningham reported that he had
diligently search’d the whole Vagina, and being well assured that that time all was clear from Imposture, I touched the Os Uteri, which was close and contracted in such manner that it would not receive so much as the point of a Bodkin into its Orifice; the Neck of the Uterus was somewhat long; I then press’d against the Uterus with my Fingers opened in such a manner as to receive as much of the Body of the Uterus into my Hand as possible, which seem’d to me to contain something of Substance in its Cavity.
The farcical language, in this context, of a ‘diligent’ search (just how much space can there be to investigate in a ‘whole Vagina’?) turns into the threat of sexual invasion, of inserting a bodkin into a resistant, ‘close and contracted’ space. Manningham, entirely indifferent to the sufferings of the woman whose body he was probing, rather prided himself on his resolve ‘to try a very painful Experiment upon her’. Accounts of the rabbit births were written by learned medical men about an illiterate woman whom they presented to the public as a ‘healthy’ and ‘strong’ specimen, ‘of a very stupid and sullen Temper’. They emphasise the imperative to see, touch and feel the physical truths of a female body – no matter what pains it may cause. Visitors to Toft’s bedchamber were openly motivated by curiosity, whether it was dressed up as scientific or admitted to be prurient. She was frequently described as enduring what one pamphlet summed up as ‘exquisite Torture’. On one of the few occasions when we seem to hear her voice, she describes feeling ‘as if very coarse brown Paper was tearing from within her’.
The crudest, funniest and most effective of the many Toft satires, the anonymous Much Ado about Nothing: or, The Rabbit-Woman’s Confession, ridiculed her illiteracy and promiscuity in an exposé ‘in her own Stile and Spelling’ that promised to get at the truth by ‘touching her in the Tenderest part, viz. her Conscience’. Toft, ‘a Woman as had grate nattural parts’, admits to having developed ‘too much Affucktation’ for her neighbour’s irresistible ‘Rawbit’ (bigger and tastier, she says, than her husband’s). When her appetites prove too much for him, he passes her on to the surgeons. The pamphlet ends with Toft rejecting the latest ‘barbirus Experiment’, ‘of sending a chimni-sweeper’s boy up my fallopin Tubb’.
The stories concocted about her are a hybrid of science, folklore, fantasy, pornography and satire, drawing on medical knowledge of pregnancy and childbirth while fuelling ancient superstitions about both. Certain aspects of the rabbit hoax echo the fairy tale of Rapunzel, versions of which had been circulating in written form in Italian since the 1630s and in French since the 1690s. In the original story a pregnant woman desperately longs for the spinach-like leaves of the rampion (rapunzel) that grows in abundance next door (sometimes, the plant or herb in question is parsley) and her husband begins to steal them for her. When he is caught, the witch who owns the garden grudgingly allows him to give his wife as much of the plant as she desires. There’s just one catch: she has to hand over her baby. When, in due course, a girl is born, she is named after the irresistible plant, as if she is the offspring of the food her mother had craved.
According to Aristotle’s theories of ‘fortuitous generation’, adapted rather than entirely repudiated by subsequent medical writers, monstrous offspring were the result of changes in environment, or of the susceptibility of the human body to the world around it. What a woman saw or felt when pregnant, or what she craved, could make such an impression on her as to be imprinted on her foetus. Because Toft had seen and then constantly thought about rabbits, whatever was already growing inside her must have assumed the likeness of those creatures. These astonishing births promised to constitute the first proof that a pregnant woman’s imagination could be so powerful as to transform a human foetus into something else entirely.
In Voltaire’s breezy, sardonic account of the whole sorry affair (in which he got most of the recorded details completely wrong), Toft conceived the tale of her births only after learning about the crackpot theories of Nathanael St André, the royal surgeon. In his version, Toft is St André’s neighbour and social equal, a woman who sets out to trounce the intellect of her male rival by supplying him with what seems to be proof of his own belief in fortuitous generation. Voltaire’s retelling of the hoax entirely ignores the deep divisions between classes which provide the basis for much of Harvey’s book, but it does bring out one key aspect of the story. People believed in the rabbit births not because the evidence was persuasive, but because they wanted to. However absurdly unlikely the whole episode – or ‘miracle’, as it was sometimes described – might appear, if it served a pet theory then people would persist in thinking there must be something in it. St André himself said he had visited Toft in order to be ‘convinced personally of a Fact of which there was no Instance in Nature’ – terms which suggest his own willingness to be misled. As Swift pointed out in ‘Cadenus and Vanessa’ (1726),
Philosophers, who find
Some fav’rite System to their Mind
In ev’ry Point to make it fit,
Will force all Nature to submit.
A quarter of a century after Toft had been outed as a liar, the Reverend William Whiston still thought the rabbit births ‘undeniably real’. They were ‘no other indeed than one direct completion of the eminent Signal before us, that towards the end of the world, “Monstrous Women should bring forth Monsters.”’ Outlandish events were supposed to mark the beginning of the apocalypse and the hybrid beasts issued from Toft’s womb must herald the end of time. Whiston thus flipped the usual version of the story: the doctors had not been deceived and then found out; rather, they had exposed a truly monstrous occurrence and then, having been ridiculed, chose to suppress it.
The poet and essayist Leigh Hunt, considering the strangely enthusiastic behaviour of St André, offered three possible interpretations: ‘he was disposed to try an experiment on national credulity’, ‘he was corrupted by money’ or ‘he was a man whose ruling passions were excitement and love of making a sensation, no matter at what expense.’ Hunt thought the last possibility the most likely, and his hunch is borne out by various comments made by the royal surgeon’s contemporaries; one doctor remarked on St André’s ‘Zeal for the Credibility of the Imposture’. Toft’s motive – or her mother-in-law’s – was presumably financial, though to judge by the various reports of her imposture she received only one guinea for all her pains.
Harvey has a theory of her own: that the ruse was an attempt by an impoverished group of people to wrest back some control of their lives – an attempt that was duly and predictably crushed by the moneyed elite. The evidence for this larger motivation is thin on the ground. Toft was briefly imprisoned in Bridewell, but since she hadn’t profited from her ruse she could hardly be accused of fraud; no charges were brought against her. What she had done was make a lot of people look very stupid. ‘Merry Tuft’, as she was identified in one pamphlet, was, in her way, a satirist: her ‘Kunny-Warren’ had fooled the experts. In later years, the Duke of Richmond sometimes wheeled her out at his Godalming dinner parties for the amusement of his guests. In 1740 she was charged with receiving stolen goods and committed to the House of Correction in Guildford, but acquitted. When she died in 1763, the London newspapers recorded her death alongside those of peers and statesmen.
Credibility is very oddly defined in this imposture. Contemporary depositions about the case primarily concern the question of whether the most socially prestigious witnesses were themselves believers – not whether that belief was right. It is striking that, in Toft’s first recorded testimony, she doesn’t (as we might have expected) announce that she really did give birth to rabbits but rather reports the opinion of a surgeon in terms that continue not only to allow for but even to encourage disbelief: ‘That Mr Ahlers declared it was wonderful People would not believe a Fact that was so true as this appeared to him, and the said Mary Toft saith, That Mr Ahlers examined her Breasts, and found Milk in one of them.’ You couldn’t say that anything in this statement amounts to a lie, because it is essentially the report of a report. It also signally fails to establish the central point at issue: had this woman given birth to rabbits or not? Why didn’t anyone ask her that question outright?
The pamphlet war lasted far longer than the deception itself: Toft’s story was exposed as a sham within seven weeks. We may wonder why it took even that long to unmask so implausible a tale, given how many surgeons and midwives were engaged in the most intrusive investigations of her body. One reason for the magnitude and intensity of the public response may be that 1726 was a bumper year for plausible duplicities, for stratagems that both invoked truth and cast doubt on every claim. The status of what purported to be fact was bound to seem up for grabs after the publication that year of Gulliver’s Travels, whose narrative ploy was so successfully deployed as to lead many readers to take it for a genuine account. St André took pains to emphasise ‘the Facts that I saw, and transacted myself’, but in the 1720s this was also the emerging language and idiom of what we now call the novel. Lemuel Gulliver, a man who comes to venerate the Houyhnhnms – a race of rational, genocidal horses – and to abhor his own kind as filthy beasts, prides himself on ‘the Facts I have related’ in his fantastical accounts of invented lands. His name went on to be coupled with that of the credulous or cynical doctors who promoted the truth of Toft’s fictional births. St André was himself accused of believing and not believing in the rabbit births at the same time.
The story demonstrates the contest between knowledge and ignorance, scepticism and gullibility, with some of the wealthier characters eventually upheld as champions of truth while the poor were cast not only as stupid but (paradoxically) as credible pedlars of lies, hell-bent on dragging the learned down with them into ignominy and disrepute. Among the more enjoyable aspects of the hoax is the spectacle of so many pompous medical men – especially those ‘eminent in the venereal Practice’ and with ‘singular Parts and peculiar Endowments’ – attacking one another. The proverbial fertility of rabbits is further demonstrated by the story’s prodigious afterlife. Alexander Pope, who co-wrote a smutty poetic squib about Toft, proceeded in The Dunciad (1728-43) to create the Goddess of Dulness, a ‘Mighty Mother’ whose numerous botched offspring themselves go on to generate monstrous children of their diseased brains in the form of bad literature:
Round him much Embryo, much Abortion lay
Much future Ode, and abdicated Play;
Nonsense precipitate, like running Lead,
That slipped thro’ cracks and zigzags of the head.
The rabbit-breeder’s hoax has resurfaced since then in essays, monographs, exhibitions and films; as recently as last year, Dexter Palmer published Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen: A Novel. The most comprehensive treatment of the hoax’s scientific, historic, philosophical and literary aspects remains Dennis Todd’s Imagining Monsters: Miscreations of the Self in 18th-Century England (1995), which is especially good at navigating all those vehement and contradictory pamphlets. Harvey’s comparatively brief study is more modest in scope, her new archival research helping to situate the episode within the local community in Godalming. She is keen to elicit the socioeconomic implications of Toft’s story, which restages the age-old conflict between the helpless poor and merciless rich that so exercised the teenage Jane Austen, but which is otherwise freakishly atypical of 18th-century experience. The exceptional nature of Toft’s case means that trying to read it as representative of women’s lives then and now can only be self-thwarting: the rabbit-breeder’s claim to distinction was that she did something nobody else had ever done or pretended to do. Mary Toft’s real triumph isn’t that she was like other women, but that she wasn’t. How many poor, illiterate, female agricultural labourers have an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography? She had a lasting impact on the king’s surgeon too: for the last fifty years of his very long life it is said that he refused to eat rabbit.